Although I had been the leading hitter in the minor leagues for two consecutive seasons—despite the fact that I suffered a three-week stretch during which my bat did not once touch a pitch—I knew that the real reason I had been brought up to the majors was to replace a dead man. Ted Monday, the former left fielder, died while grilling a steak in his yard. Thirty-three, in perfect health, an athlete; yet he died for no apparent physical reason. There had been no heart attack, no stroke, no cancer, no overdose. His body just stopped being a live thing. He had been a baseball player. He went out like one. He died on the Fourth of July with a Budweiser in his hand.
The big-league coaches wanted to get a look at me. They said I was the best pure singles hitter they had ever seen. (But this is only three men talking.) I’m a righty, and they suggested that I learn to drop my right shoulder as I made contact with the ball. That way, they said, I’d hit home runs, loft the ball into the blue-collar sections of the stadium, far past the corporate boxes and first-row baseline seats reserved for visiting celebrities, up into the celestial realm of stardom and product-endorsement contracts. But first I’d have to put a little weight on, add some beef to my 160-pound frame.
“Drink some beer once in a while,” Lunch (as in “out to”) Molloy said. He was a flatulent, rhino-shaped man with a nose that looked like a fresh fig hanging from the center of his eyebrows. His purpose on the team, as I saw it, was to imitate the figure of the imperturbable batting coach, ever unruffled.
“I do,” I said. “Every day.”
“Then why are you so skinny?”
“I don’t eat.”
“Then drink some more.”
The team hired a special batting instructor to accelerate (so they hoped) my development. He was a Hall of Famer, a former golden boy in the game: viceless, unselfish, leader by example; anonymous during the off-season, married to a US president’s niece. He was, quite possibly, the greatest hitter the game had ever seen, and he’d sacrificed a week of fishing and flown in from his island retreat in order to stand behind me at the plate, spit into the mud, and earn $75,000.
“Naw, not like that,” he said, after I’d fouled off a slider. The dirt at his feet was pitted with wads of slimy tobacco.
I drove the next pitch, a curveball up and in around my hands, into the opposite field. Clean single.
“Now that’s better. What did you do that time?”
“I hit the ball fair.”
“No. You waited. Wait on the ball. Don’t be afraid to wait.”